Rising above the obstacles

Local boy spends 20 hours a week in 4-H activities despite having kidney disease

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At first glace, Dakota Watson looks like any other 11-year-old boy. He banters with his sister, loves basketball and is growing out of clothes faster than his mom can buy them.But the fact that Dakota is even alive is a miracle in itself.

The Camas resident was born with serious medical complications, including a cross-fused ectopic kidney. By the time Dakota was two days old, he had been through two surgeries.

“He wasn’t expected to even survive,” recalled his mom, Samantha.

But Dakota was a fighter and still is, she added.

“The doctors thought he would have to get a kidney transplant by the time he was 2,” Samantha said. “Every time it sounds really bad, he just finds a way to pull through it.”

Despite undergoing 25 surgeries and coping with chronic kidney disease, Dakota is an active child who plays basketball and is passionate about his 4-H rabbits.

Samantha and his dad, Martin Jr., decided to encourage Dakota to join 4-H four years ago because it was one of the activities he could participate in with his medical issues.

Also, his father, grandmother and great-grandmother had all been members.

Dakota began raising rabbits with the Washougal-based 4-H R.O.C.K.S club, and has been placing high in various shows and fairs since. He raises approximately 100 Polish, Jersey Woolly, and Silver Fox rabbits per year.

“I love looking at the rabbits and figuring out what I want and what I don’t need,” he said.

Recently, Dakota took top honors at the Skamania County Fair with his Polish rabbit Prince by sweeping the best in show, best in breed, junior champion showman, grand champion market pen and master rabbit showman categories.

In addition, he was named 4-H’er of the Year, and his mentor, Billie Jo McEathron, was named 4-H Leader of the Year.

His parents were surprised and excited.

“We were surprised he won all those awards because of his (young) age, but at the same time, weren’t really that surprised,” Samantha said. “Once he hits the show table, he is extremely poised and ready.”

Dakota’s issues with stuttering, which hadn’t been helped much with speech therapy, diminished considerably with every show he participated in.

Samantha added that her son’s success in 4-H was even sweeter because there are so many sports and activities he cannot participate in due to his medical condition.

“We are just so proud of him, because we know how difficult things have been for him, literally since birth,” she said. “He comes from a family where all the guys play football and wrestle, and he can’t do that. But he can do well at other things.”

Dakota has immersed himself in the rabbit world, researching meticulously how to best care for the creatures. He also participates in year-round American Rabbit Breeders Association shows, in addition to various fairs during the summer months.

“The ARBA shows are where I get most of my knowledge,” he said. “That’s where I get my questions answered.”

Added Samantha, “We call him ‘the rabbit sponge.’ He just seems to absorb everything and always wants to improve.”

Dakota said he was surprised to win, but felt he had worked hard for the honor.

“I think I deserved it because I didn’t do very well at the Canby (Ore.) show, but then I learned from it, and worked hard to do better.”

Dakota is considering raising a goat for the fair next year, in addition to rabbits, especially after hearing comments from Skamania County Fair Judge Vern Palmblad.

“He said, ‘Dakota, I think you’ve mastered rabbits, it’s time to move on to something else,’” Dakota recalled.

In addition to all the accolades, Dakota also made money from the sale of his rabbits, which he plans to donate to Family Kidney Camp, sponsored by NW Kidney Kids.

The camp, in Canby, Ore., is free to pediatric end stage renal patients and their families. Between the sale of his market pen to 3 Kings Environmental, and donations, Dakota has raised almost $1,000 for the camp.

The donations have come from friends, family members, employees at local businesses and others.

“I just think of those kids, and my own future, and how I may go to that camp someday,” he said. “It is for really sick kids.”

As of now, Dakota has avoided dialysis and many other medical complications associated with his condition, but the future is unknown. Currently, he is on a medication regimen and must avoid caffeine, as well as too much sugar.

“Our goal is to skip dialysis,” said Samantha. “I want to give him one of my kidneys when it comes time to transplant. I am thankful for every day we have him after what he’s gone through.”